A three story brick tudor overgrown with ivy, the house gave the impression of cultivated neglect, as if its occupants disdained careful grooming. There was something mysterious and wild that the house announced, with stone gargoyles atop pillars in the circular drive and a brass lion’s head as the knocker on the thick, wooden door. Their effect was of creatures both conjured and petrified, who might at any point come to life. To the left of a spacious entrance hall was the library, a room about twenty feet high with a wrap-around balcony and bookcases lining the walls floor to ceiling. The upper cases were accessed by an iron spiral staircase. Around the room, spread with an ornately patterned Oriental rug, leaded windows were fitted with stained glass depicting alchemical symbols. Inside, a leather, tufted psychoanalyst’s couch was surrounded by a dizzying array of objects: collections of pipes carved of ivory and ebony; bottles of poisons from old apothecaries; lava lamps pulsing like glowing jelly fish; tarantulas encased in jars. Every surface was covered by some object of art, animal statue, voodoo doll, or map. There were strangely erotic sketches, from line drawings of naked people in orgiastic groupings to the Tantric images of half humans locked together in pretzel-like poses. And best of all was a secret room completely concealed behind a bookcase.
My father’s library was the virtual center of the house, but there were other rooms of interest: the dark wood paneled dining room, its long gleaming table topped with crystal candelabras; the medieval looking chairs intricately carved with the faces of wild animals; the meditation hall on the second floor landing strewn with pillows and hung with tapestries; and the cozy attic rooms where I slept weekends and holidays with my bed pushed under the eves.
From early on, I was pretty sure that my father was magic. Although he didn’t really deceive me, he cultivated this belief. When I was about five years old, we planned to have him summon someone in the living room with the help of a large, dusty, leather-bound book. I sat on the couch next to him, my legs dangling above the floor. My hands were clasped together and I bounced ever so slightly, jittery with anticipation. Handling the book with the deftness of a practiced conjurer, my father found the page he was looking for, the page with the spell. He met my eye with a seriousness not usually directed at little girls.
“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” he asked.
He began to read in a foreign tongue as I watched, mesmerized. I would soon be hosting Superman in my living room. I loved everything about Superman, his speed, his soaring acrobatic leaps, his ability to penetrate solid surfaces with his gaze, and especially, I think, his vulnerability. For not only was Kryptonite alarmingly available, but he was also the awkward Kent, whose human-like gifts were undetectable, whose longings were shunned. I felt a little sorry for him. I wanted him to like me. And so I waited as my father recited the incantation, carried along by the rhythm of the sounds and his quickening pace until suddenly he stopped.
“Now imagine the person you want to appear,” he instructed. “Close your eyes, and let the image form in your mind. Tell me when you have it.”
I obeyed, closing my eyes. It was orange-black in there, and spots danced under my lids. I had to focus. Think what he looks like, I told myself. And so I thought of his elastic suit with its bright, primary colors, but somehow the real Superman was not there, and I couldn’t get a clear picture in my mind.
“Are you trying?”
“I don’t see him yet.”
“We’ll wait,” my father said. “These things require patience.”
He was quiet as I tried again, focussing this time on Superman’s dark hair and square jaw.
But should I picture him with or without his glasses? I stared into the dotted dark depths of my eyelid, where I now saw lines and patches. And then, as I looked on, an image began to take shape. Before I knew what was happening, before my will could intervene, it was there, fully formed, the unmistakable head of Buddha, which I had seen in my father’s library among his collection of Asian artifacts. It was larger than a real head, with an unusually round, high forehead. It wore a headpiece, perhaps an earring, and was made of a dull, gray metal. I wasn’t sure if it was a kind of God or a beheaded criminal. But either way, I didn’t want a floating head to appear in the living room.
“Make it go away,” I whimpered.
“Are you sure?”
“We’ll chant it backwards,” he said. “Say it with me.”
When we were done, I opened my eyes. The living room was as before. I was deeply grateful. My father had saved me.
When my own children were quite small, I wondered whether they might be frightened of the library. Would the masks of grimacing faces or the human shrunken skulls or the erotic art unsettle them? There was no evidence of it. Soon they began their magic lessons, while I was left to my own devices, as if I had become the kind of adult that the Little Prince feels sorry for, the kind that can’t tell the difference between a drawing of a hat and a drawing of an elephant swallowed by a boa constrictor. My new role was to stand by–in complicity? exclusion?–as my father whisked them off to his library.
My son–about seven years old at the time– was the perfect age for initiation and my daughter, about four, was the perfect age for belief. My father would reach into a stone frog vessel, scoop a handful of powder, and toss it into the looming hearth, which instantaneously erupted into flames. My son waited eagerly for instructions, and I saw in my father’s expression the same seriousness he had once directed at me.
“The first lesson will be learning how to look,” he said. And he would proceed to point out the most minute perceptions to my children: dust motes dancing in the air, shadows casting patterns. They listened intently for all of the sounds they could hear: birds chirping outside, a car screeching to a halt, an electric hum in the air. They would practice focusing, paying attention. What appeared to be a line joining two walls was actually just the place of meeting between planes. Really, there were no such things as lines. They made wands together with sticks and stones and strips of leather. From a big brown leather chair in the library, stories took shape: it was almost possible to see planets and stars, hear foreign languages, reach out and touch the robes of the ancient philosophers. For years, my children heard his stories until my son become old enough to develop his first hint of suspicion. Was my father pretending? Was he lying? Would he lie to someone he loved?
The thing was, my father was not exactly pretending. But it was hard to explain to a boy who had reached the age of skepticism, a boy caught between doubt and hope. My father was not crazy, was not lying; he believed in his own magic. He was not trying–not really–to trick anyone. From early on, he was a collector. He went looking for treasures in flea markets and the back rooms of antique shops. He scoured estate sales and ebay and even sidewalks. And slowly, the library was born. All of the objects that had found their way to it were symbolically weighted and they all called out, conjuring myths, ideas, feelings, exerting an influence. Was that not magic? Was it not magic to hear–through reading a book written in another continent at another time–the words of the dead, words that connect two souls who never met in life? If, by making the hearth burst into flames with a flamboyant flick of the arm, he implied that he was a wizard and not instead a dream-reader, an interpreter for and messenger from the realm of the unconscious, was he bending the truth? Or was he rather pointing to the same thing known by a different name and recognized by different signs? The task of both vocations–wizard and dream-reader–is the same: to embrace the other-worldly; to dwell in a place where things are strange; to allow oneself wonder; to face terror; to help embattled creatures come to peace.
Some people will understand magic as an allegory of power, which is one of its dimensions. To access or unleash it, it’s necessary to plumb one’s deepest internal resources, while at the same time looking outside the self and appreciating the magic of the given world. One of its gifts is that magic creates a space reserved for alternatives. The world is as it is, but it also contains something else lurking behind or within. The role of magic is not to denigrate this world but to reveal its other dimensions, to insist, not on the real, but on the possible, and to keep one’s sense of possibility fluid. And so, in my accounting, there was no lie about the magic that filled the library or the powers that my father demonstrated even if he relied on some trickery to bring it across.
My father’s home was no ordinary one. I was a child whose home was twice doubled, first, because I had two homes, a life lived part here, part there. My homes were a study in contrast; one was looming and seemingly endless, with cracked ceilings and peeling paint and a dizzying quantity of odd and interesting things. The other was a small but curated townhouse, the living room painted a rich, warm burgundy up-lit by torchieres, lending drama to a few, beautiful objects, selected not so much for their symbolism but for their sculptural beauty: a Chinese carved relief, a vase spilling over with tulips; a curved French armoire.
But my homes were doubled in the other sense too, both cozy and theatrical, both safe and brimming with dangers. A home never seemed a thing with a white picket fence, idealized for its purity or denigrated for the same. Home was neither whole nor wholesome and that was its beauty. Despite evidence to the contrary in the performances of magic that my father practiced, it was not a home built on lies. It offered protection, but not the sort that assumed my weakness. Its impurity was the very thing from which my trust derived and my imagination developed.
When I praise fright as the foundation of home, I’m advocating the fright of dream- worlds not abusers. That is an entirely different sort of fright belonging to the world of the real. When I praise fright as the foundation of the home, I am understanding home as the very place of dreaming. Night after night, tucked away in bed, dreams resist the world of the mundane, of practicality and realism, of usefulness and profitability. There is plenty of time in the world for all that.
My homes were twice doubled, a thing that seemed to make me different from my friends. Much later I realized that this difference was probably exaggerated, that there are plenty of examples of doubled homes outside my own. From Victorian novels I learned that a home was once understood as a refuge, a sacrosanct place ruled by women, protected from the corrupted, commercial world of men. Yet, the very same Victorian woman who was the angel of the home was also its prisoner, elevated and debased, unwelcome in the working world. From a gothic tale I learned that vampires invade the home only at one’s own invitation, that foreign, frightening things will find their way inside and that we want them to. There are the examples we know from our own lives, in which, behind the picket fence, children often morph into alienated creatures whose parents refuse to see them, who insist (it seems) on limiting and confining them, without understanding that they’ve outgrown their flowery bedspreads or that they never liked them to begin with.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy returns to her beloved home much relieved without seeming to realize that the evil witch, the neighborhood busy-body, has not really melted (that happened in the dream) and is still practicing coercive social control. But she is relieved because she has learned an important lesson. “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,” she says, “I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.” This puzzling lesson always filled me with profound disappointment, for it seemed a speech against adventure and against desire, a speech that runs from her whole wonderful, wild adventure back to the safe, familial fold. It is a speech that allowed for only one possibility: that desire is found in family life. And for a young person, this is a devastating reversal of all that was won in Oz, even if my own childhood home was one of adventure and even if, as an adult, I find it so still.
But what if the image of the witch driving by on her bicycle were there to hint to us, not just that Dorothy transformed the figures of her everyday world into the creatures of Oz, but that her own world is full of the marvelous, a category to which the witch necessarily belongs? A home might be a refuge, but it is a doubled one. Despite the comforts it often promises, it is also a place where monsters lurk. And this isn’t a bad thing at all.
Loved it! Love you.
This was a wonderful piece. Beautiful writing, evocative of the mystery and thrill of childhood perceptions.
I feel that I have new insight into the author via this journey into her magical upbringing. Hogwarts has nothing on this house of mystery!
beautifully captured! A wonderful précis that exPlains so much!
Nice to read, after having been there and we were talking about it tonight.
Peace & gratitude,